Credit: Mauricio Ramos
The Tuna Dispute - Environmentalism or Trade Protectionism?
By Humberto Márquez
Imports of Latin American tuna continue to face a ban in the United States, which claims that its strict rules are to protect dolphins. But the region's fishing industry charges that it is an undue barrier to free trade.
CARACAS, (Tierramérica).- The U.S. market is closed to tuna caught by Latin American fishing boats in the Pacific Ocean due to a 2004 judicial order aimed at protecting dolphins. The region's fishers, however, consider the measure an ''ecological mask'' for what are protectionist interests.
Ecuador, Mexico and Venezuela have annual tuna catches of 130,000 to 160,000 tons each, while the fishing industries of Bolivia, Colombia and Central American countries take in smaller volumes -- also from the Eastern Pacific.
Dolphins follow schools of the highly prized yellowfin tuna (Thunnus albacares), and thus often get caught in the fishing nets, as do sea turtles and sharks.
Seven million dolphins died in the past 50 years as a result of tuna fishing, according to the U.S.-based Earth Island Institute (EII).
The environmental organization admits, however, that the problem has been reduced for more than a decade, so much so that dolphin deaths resulting from fishing activities dropped from 136,000 in 1986 to 4,000 in the past year.
Despite that evidence, EII and other conservation groups appealed a decision by the U.S. Trade Department to relax the standards for ''dolphin safe'' labeling to include net fishing if observers certified that no dolphin had been injured or killed during the catch.
The measure would open the door to the enormous U.S. market for tuna coming from Mexico and, by extension, from other Latin American exporters.
Based on the appeal of the environmental activists, Judge Thelton Henderson, of the U.S. Federal District Court in San Francisco, California, ruled on Aug. 9, 2004 against the Trade Department's decision, leaving the ban on imports of Latin American tuna intact.
But tuna industry executives in the region assure that their fishing operations comply with international standards for protecting dolphins.
''The nets used by the Mexican and Venezuelan tuna fleets have protective panels to reduce the risk of trapping dolphins, and they follow other provisions set by the InterAmerican Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC),'' Ricardo Molinet, director of the Venezuelan Tuna Fishing Association, told Tierramérica.
One of those rules establishes periods for bans on fishing -- in November and December -- agreed by Guatemala, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Spain, United States, Vanuatu and Venezuela.
Furthermore, the fleets are to place priority on daytime fishing, have a IACCT observer aboard each boat to oversee the release of any dolphins that get trapped, and have speedboats available to send out rescue teams to free the dolphins from the nets.
''The dolphins trapped in the nets can be released in less than one hour after each sweep of the schools of fish, and the tuna caught without killing dolphins is loaded and processed apart from the rest, to be labeled dolphin-free,'' Molinet explained.
In his ruling last year, Judge Henderson argued that the available scientific information did not rule out the possibility that dolphins suffer high stress caused by the fishing industry, and that affects reproduction and conservation of the dolphin population.
The EII applauded the federal judge's decision as ''a major victory.'' EII director David Phillips accused the George W. Bush administration of deceit ''in ignoring its own scientists and caving in to Mexican demands to allow dolphin-deadly tuna back into the United States with a phony label.''
The environmental organization has argued in its reports that the Colombian and Mexican fishing fleets are used by narco-trafficking groups as a cover for transporting illegal drugs to the United States -- that there is a ''tuna-cocaine connection''.
But other eco-groups, such as Venezuela's Foundation for Responsible Tuna Fishing, blame entities like EII for underestimating scientific evidence, the impact of the IACCT accords and the statistics on reduced harm to dolphins, in order to become an agency for degrading tuna prices.
This would benefit the U.S. tuna canning companies, like Starkist, J. Wattie's, Miramonet and Tree of Life, which the groups say finance EII.
Venezuela and Mexico have repeatedly spoken out against the Henderson decision, saying it is merely a cover-up for a barrier to free trade -- what Mexico's under-secretary for fishing, Carlos Camacho, has called ''an ecological mask''.
Rulings by federal judges like Henderson are valid for the entire United States, but are subject to a long process of appeals, and the countries affected by the tuna decision could also file complaints with the World Trade Organization, said Molinet.
Meanwhile, the United States is negotiating a free trade treaty with three Andean countries (Colombia, Ecuador and Peru) that could free Ecuador's tuna exports from tariffs. In the past, Mexico has accused Ecuador of inappropriate tuna fishing practices.
Worldwide, tuna fishing surpasses 3.4 million tons, and the leaders in the industry are Japan, Taiwan, Spain, Thailand, South Korea and the United States.
* Humberto Márquez is an IPS correspondent.